international analysis and commentary

Aleppo: a changing balance of forces in Syria?

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Since 2011, violence has redrawn the territorial shape of Syria, detaching some regions from others, respectively under the control of diverse local and transnational militias and armed groups. The elastic fluctuation of strategic divergences and convergences between regional and international actors, that have interfered with or intervened into the domestic conflict, also fostered the fragmentation of Syria. However, this disruption of the Syrian territory seems to be on the rollback, as Ankara recently stepped into the conflict with the aim of establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria (in agreement with Washington), and Assad forces are slowly regaining lost territories (with the support of Moscow).

In order to capture these developments, one has to look at the outburst of violence that once again enflamed the Aleppo region (in the North-West of Syria) throughout the summer of 2016.

Ankara’s direct intervention in the Aleppo region comes as a reaction to the Kurdish expansion of influence in the same area. In fact, in mid-August the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) kicked the Islamic State out of Manbij and the surrounding Al-Shahaba region in a painstaking operation that was initially launched on May 31st. Manbij had fallen under the control of the Islamic State in 2014, and – together with Al-Bab and Jarablus – crucially served as a gateway to connect Syria and Iraq through a Turkish “jihadi route”. With the support of US air power and special forces, the SDF stripped Manbij, Al-Bab and the nearby villages away from the Islamic State.

However, as the SDF made their move towards Jarablus, Ankara announced – on August 24th – its direct participation in the conflict. Ankara has been a long-standing supporter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist militias fighting in Syria, but never intervened with its own army. In an attempt to forestall the SDF, Turkish troops and Ankara-sponsored rebels wrenched Jarablus from the Islamic State. Yet, they did not face stiff resistance from the jihadi group, whilst the most intense clashes curiously occurred between Turkish forces and the SDF. The script was repeated in the town of Al-Rae, north of Aleppo, where the Islamic State essentially handed the village over to the Turks.

Whereas events in Manbij inflicted an unyielding defeat to the self-proclaimed Caliphate, the SDF operation was also meant to have a wider strategic significance for the Syrian Kurds – especially the People’s Defense Forces (YPG). The implicit goal was to potentially connect the Kurdish territorial pockets – Afrin, Kobane and the Syrian Jazira – marking a major step toward the yearned unification of the Rojava.

It is a well-known fact that Turkey’s main strategic concern is not defeating the Islamic State, rather preventing the YPG (a close ally of the Turkey-based PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization) from establishing an autonomous region in the northern part of Syria. In this spirit, Ankara warned its main NATO partner, the United States, that the YPG crossing the Euphrates was a “red line” for Turkey.

Yet, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most urgent concern after Manbij is that the SDF could replicate the Manbij strategic framework to retake Raqqa (East of Aleppo, central Syria), the capital of the self-proclaimed Caliphate. If this scenario comes true – in the context of growing international consensus that eradicating the Islamic State is priority number one – the Kurds would boost their moral claims in the eyes of the entire world. Unsurprisingly, Turkey is now eager to march towards Raqqa. On September 7, 2016, Erdogan announced it would join the US in any operation against the Caliphate bastion. Amidst a newly recovered entente between Ankara and Washington, the Turkish President is attempting to divert US support from Syrian Kurdish forces. Ironically enough, Turkey is trying to replace the YPG as the most reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State, after having been long accused of ambiguous behavior toward the Caliphate.

Although the Syrian regime and Russia have both condemned the Turkish intervention in Northern Syria (where Erdogan wants to establish a “safe zone”), disappointment has not turned into counteroffensive, signaling a cold entente between the two former rivals. In fact, Turkish intervention does not interfere with the objectives of the Assad regime, that has invested in an all-in strategy to crush the rebels in eastern Aleppo. The campaign has strained and starved the rebel part of the divided city, whilst on the other side pro-Assad bourgeois youths have fun in swimming pool parties.

On September 6th, Iranian General Qassem Suleimani appeared in Aleppo to boost the moral of Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi foreigners fighting for Assad. On September 7th, regime planes allegedly dropped barrel bombs with chlorine gas on the rebel-held Sukari neighborhood, and further advanced in the contested Al-Ramuseh district. These moves suggest that Aleppo is to capitulate soon to Assad.

Meanwhile, the regime is slowly attempting to cleanse all the remaining pockets of resistance within the territories under its control. In late August, Darayya, a suburb of Damascus (amongst the earliest towns to join anti-Assad protests in 2011), surrendered and all civilians and fighters were evacuated in rebel-held areas. Other long-standing bastions of the opposition were fully evacuated and the regime is allegedly pushing thousands of civilians toward Idlib and other northern rebel areas.

This coordinated strategy of heavy bombings, artillery operations, urban guerrilla warfare carried out by pro-regime foreign fighters, starvation and forced migration looks like the prelude of Assad’s bid for reconquering Syria.

Although enemies on paper, Ankara and Damascus are not likely to clash during this new phase of the war. Quite the contrary, Erdogan’s bid for a “safe zone” in Northern Syria could turn into a good shot for Damascus’ attempt at regaining and stabilizing territorial control. Under the umbrella of a new and shaky ceasefire, manufactured by Russia and the US amidst manifold controversies, Turkey and Syria seem to agree on a short-term strategy, which includes weakening the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (ex Jabhat al-Nusra), and containing the Syrian Kurds.

After Erdogan called Assad “a more advanced terrorist” in early June 2016, his Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said one month later that Turkey could potentially normalize ties with Syria. The two presidents, who once used to call themselves “brothers”, are interested in securing their power more than anything else. Apparently this route passes through a new entente, which seems to neither disappoint the US nor Russia.

However, in addition to 430,000 victims, the approximately 10 million internally and externally displaced, the enormous infrastructural damage, and the many unintended consequences the war in Syria has produced, it would be naïve  to think that everything can be  resolved in a brilliant stroke. Every armed group has developed aspirations to power, along with its warfare engagement. After five years of conflict, neither the Syrian Kurds nor the variegated anti-Assad opposition would be ready to fit into any regional or international agreement aimed at wiping them out. Moreover, as President Obama is approaching the end of his mandate, all conflict parties appear in the waiting. Whereas Obama has championed a cautious and pragmatic strategy in Syria, the future US president may shift toward a more interventionist approach.

In this context, no matter whether the ceasefire holds to its expectations or not, the latest phase of the war is more likely to see actors engaging in securing their partial gains, rather than a game between major powers.